Atelectasis is a collapse in part of the lungs. Normally, air passes through the airways into small sacs of the lungs. Oxygen from the air passes through these sacs into the blood. Carbon dioxide also passes from the blood to the sacs to leave the body. With atelectasis, these sacs are collapsed. Oxygen and carbon dioxide cannot pass through the collapsed sacs.
A collapse over large areas of the lungs can lead to serious problems. In infants, atelectasis may be: Congenital—present at birthAcquired—caused by an acquired condition
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Atelectasis is not a disease. It is the result of a disease or abnormality in the body. It can be caused by: Blockage in airways—as a result of an inhaled stool during birth, inhaled object, or a mucus plug that keeps air from moving into sacsLung infections—may cause fluid build-up that blocks air to lung sacsLack of surfactant (common in premature infants)—surfactant is a fluid that lines the inside of the lungs and helps them function properlyImpaired breathing—air is not pulled deep enough into the lungs to open all sacsDamage to nerve and muscles that control breathing—may prevent coughing, deep breathing, or yawning
Factors that increase the chance of congenital atelectasis include: Inhaled meconium or amniotic fluidProlonged or difficult laborBirth injury to central nervous system
Children under 3 years old are more likely to develop atelectasis than older children or adults. Factors that may increase your baby’s chance of atelectasis include: Premature birthLung condition or infection—particularly if coughing is impairedInjury to chest wallHaving anesthesiaInhaling a foreign object, such as a peanut or marbleRespiratory distress syndromeBeing on ventilator—air does not move into lungs in a normal pattern
Atelectasis may not have obvious symptoms.
Larger areas of atelectasis may lead to: Rapid breathingTaking shallow breathsAgitationCoughingDecreased chest movement during breathingWheezingFeverBlueness of the skin
The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. The doctor will listen to breath sounds. To confirm atelectasis your doctor will need detailed pictures of the lungs. This may be done with: Chest x-ray
may be done if an obstruction is a possibility. This is an exam of the lungs, done with a small tube.
Treatment will be based on the cause of the atelectasis. Some oxygen or breathing support may also be needed until the problem resolves. Treatment options include:
Your doctor will take steps to remove any blockage that is causing the problem.
A bronchoscopy may be done to remove an inhaled object. A thin tube-shaped tool called a bronchoscope is used. It is passed down the throat and into the lungs. The doctor can pass small tools through the bronchoscope to remove the object.
A bronchoscopy may also be done to remove a mucus plug.
Chest therapy can be used to help move mucus out of the lungs. There are a few different types that may be used. One option uses a rhythmic tapping on the back and chest. Certain positions will also use gravity to help mucus flow out of the body. Your baby may be placed in special positions to help move mucus out of the lungs.
This may include any or all of the following: Breathing masks or treatments to help keep airways openSuction to help remove secretionsBreathing support with ventilator—to take over or assist breathing until your baby is better
Medications may help to improve breathing or treat the underlying condition. Medications may help to: Open the airwaysTreat the disease that caused the collapseTreat an infection (antibiotics)
Oxygen may be needed to support your baby while he/she recovers.
Not all atelectasis can be prevented. To help reduce your baby’s chance of atelectasis, take these steps: Be careful with small objects around infantsWork with your doctor to treat or manage any lung conditions your baby has
Take steps to avoid premature birth such as:
Get regular prenatal careDuring pregnancy, eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetablesGet adequate activity
Some medical conditions or treatments increase your baby’s risk of atelectasis. Your doctor will take certain steps to prevent atelectasis such as: Medication to improve surfactant in premature babiesTreating and monitoring lung infectionsCareful management of necessary oxygen or breathing therapy in infants
Last reviewed September 2013 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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